Landmarks West Gets Into It with New York Historian Extraordinaire Kenneth T. Jackson

The site of the skirmish.

The site of the skirmish.

Do you hear that? It’s the sound of dozens of uptown preservationists dumping their carefully annotated copies of The Encyclopedia of New York City into their recycling bins. Columbia professor Kenneth T. Jackson, the man who literally wrote the book on New York City history and president emeritus of the New York Historical Society has officially become a persona non grata among the Landmarks West set.

In what was clearly the opening volley of a battle of epic, nay historic, proportions Mr. Jackson penned a pro Midtown East rezoning op-ed in The New York Times that not only placed him in the opposite camp as his historically-minded, preservationist brethren, but specifically called out Landmarks West for special criticism:

“Landmark West, a preservation group on the Upper West Side that has helped increase the area’s buildings designated as historic from 337 in 1985 to almost 3,000 today, is frank about its objective to designate more buildings as landmarks and more neighborhoods as historic districts. Presumably, its leaders would be happy to stop any change at all between 59th Street and 125th Street.”

We assume that there were a lot of preservationists angrily dialing numbers into their rotary telephones after that newspaper hit doorsteps.

Mr. Jackson doesn’t just lash out at Landmarks West, though. In what is a compelling and thoughtful essay (at least we thought so) on New York’s nature and needs (the Midtown East rezoning is not without its problems, but it is, after all, a commercial business district and should not be treated with kid gloves when it comes to development), he also criticizes the city’s entire preservation community.

“While the historic preservation achievements of the past half century have been remarkable, the local effort has moved well beyond its original purpose. Landmark designation now covers more than 31,000 properties across the city. Its goal seems to be to preserve anything that will maintain the streetscape, whether or not the individual structures have significance. Entire blocks are frozen on the logic that the first buildings ever put there are also the best that could ever be imagined there.”

Oh no he didn’t!

Landmarks West hurriedly dashed off a response to The Times: “Kenneth T. Jackson knows better than to mix the zoning issues at stake in East Midtown with a different set of issues involved in landmark preservation… as a city planning tool, zoning is used to manage sustainable growth for the future, while landmark preservation seeks to protect our architectural and cultural resources that give our cities character, identity and historical context.”

And a somewhat more pointed response to their supporters titled, “LW! to Kenneth Jackson: New York is Not Hong Kong!” which reads: “We know that Professor Jackson does not speak for all of us when he claims that New York must make an either/or decision if it wants to remain ‘the wonder city‘ or if it should ‘follow the paths of Boston, Philadelphia, Charleston and Savannah in emphasizing its human scale, its gracious street and its fine, historic houses.’ “In fact, LW! believes that New York should be proud to be included in the same sentence as these remarkable world-class cities.”

Perhaps Landmarks West favorite and fellow Columbia professor Andrew Dolkart can calm these troubled waters. If not, your move, Mr. Jackson.